I recently read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and if you haven’t read this book, I highly recommend it. It’s about a woman in the 1950’s whose cells are used to propel science’s progress—without her consent. She was a black woman and she couldn’t walk into the general entrance to the building—that was a white people only entrance at that time. Her cancer ended up killing her, and the doctors never informed her family that her cells had been taken, nor that they had been kept alive. The family found out more than twenty years later. It’s hard to know whether they were treated this way because of their race, or because of the times—the author mentions that even today there are no hard and fast rules about getting informed consent when you have tissue samples taken at a doctor’s office. Which basically means that the same thing that happened to Henrietta could happen to anyone, even today. The reviews on the book included one that said it read like a novel—which I took to mean that it was hard to believe that it could be true that a patient and her family could really be treated in such a disgraceful way.
Second in my recent reading list is a book that Wayne Dyer recommended, and said was one of Elvis’ favorites. He didn’t need to say another word about the book—I love Wayne Dyer, and my dad loved Elvis. So on my nightstand currently is a little book called The Impersonal Life, and in one of its chapters, the one on consciousness, intelligence, and will, it talks about the cells that make up a body. It says one cell inside you is to your whole being as your consciousness is to the divine source (using whatever name you prefer) that runs this show. This book packs a punch—it’s hard to take in all that it’s saying, but it’s comparing the cellular level of your body to our ability to take in and understand what’s going on in a cosmic, universal kind of way. I’ve always felt kind of like a cell, maybe in the eye—I can’t see everything, just a bit of the action, and I don’t know what the cells in the liver are up to, but I want to understand everything that’s happening more than I do. “The Impersonal Life” argues that we are all one in consciousness—the cell, you, and the divine source. The book also posits that the cells in your body are following the divine source’s intelligence and will—doing what they do because they’re being directed to do that by the cosmos.
So on the one hand, we have a woman who lived in a time where the doctors took her cancerous cells, kept them alive, and multiplied them over and over again, running tests on them to this very day. Tests that include combining her cells with cells of rats and other species, injecting them with all kinds of diseases, and generally torturing these cells. And then on the other hand, we have the idea that our cells are doing what they’re doing because the universe’s director made them that way intentionally and planned it all out to happen just this way. Is everything predestined? And does that include the painful, subjectively terrible stuff including when your dead relative’s cells are being manipulated in petri dishes in labs all over the world? Henrietta’s cells have helped doctors cure tuberculosis and other diseases—and her family is noted in the book as saying that they are glad that her cells have helped so many people. Still, I wouldn’t begrudge them wishing it had been anyone else’s cells who had been used.
There’s the idea that if you go with the flow of the universe, if you tap into the universe’s intelligence, and will, and consciousness, you will be directing yourself and your cells in the exact manner that the universe wants you to—controlling yourself down to the cellular level. Is it possible? Or is it out of our control?
I have a hard time reconciling all of these ideas—they still feel like a bit of a mishmash in my brain and spilling out onto this blog. Perhaps because I’m just a cell in the body of the universe.